Interest in serotonergic involvement in Parkinson's disease (PD) has focussed recently on the possibility that the remaining serotonin neurons innervating striatum (caudate and putamen) might release dopamine as a 'false transmitter'--an action that could have both beneficial and harmful (e.g. promotion of levodopa-induced dyskinesias) consequences. Evidence for a brain serotonergic disturbance in PD is derived in large part from findings of decreased binding of different radioligands to the serotonin transporter (SERT), one 'marker' of serotonin neurons. However, it is not known whether the reported changes in SERT binding reflect actual changes in levels of SERT protein or whether concentrations of all serotonin markers are similarly and markedly decreased in the two striatal subdivisions. We measured levels of SERT immunoreactivity, and for comparison, protein levels of tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH; the marker synthetic enzyme) using a Western blot procedure, as well as concentrations of serotonin, its metabolite 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA), and dopamine by HPLC in post-mortem striatum of patients with PD and normal controls. Whereas concentrations of dopamine were severely decreased (caudate, -80%; putamen, -98%) and showed little (caudate) or no (putamen) overlap between individual control and patient values, levels of all four serotonin markers were less markedly reduced (-30% to -66%) with some patients having distinctly normal levels. Unlike the preferential loss of dopamine in putamen, the caudate was affected more than putamen by loss of all serotonin markers: serotonin (-66% versus -51%), 5-HIAA (-42% versus -31%), SERT (-56% versus -30%) and TPH (-59% versus -32%). Striatal serotonin concentration was similar in the subset of patients reported to have had dyskinesias versus those not reported to have had this drug complication. Previous findings of decreased SERT binding are likely explained by loss of SERT protein. Reduced striatal levels of all of the key serotonergic markers (neurotransmitter and metabolite, transporter protein, synthesizing enzyme protein) provide strong evidence for a serotonergic disturbance in PD, but with some patients affected much more than others. The more marked caudate reduction suggests that raphe neurons innervating this area are more susceptible to 'damage' than those innervating putamen and that any functional impairment caused by striatal serotonin loss might primarily involve the caudate. Questions related to the, as yet undetermined, clinical consequences in PD of a striatal serotonin deficiency (caudate: cognitive impairment?) and preservation (putamen: levodopa-induced dyskinesias?) should be addressed in prospective brain imaging and pharmacological studies.